Despite a powerfully good first act, Maleficent ultimately collapses into a gutless retcon that possesses little of Sleeping Beauty's native charm, elevated to watchability solely by the presence of Angelina Jolie in the titular role.
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Written by Linda Woolverton, stepping on the work of at least eight other people
With Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Sharlto Copley (Stefan), and Elle Fanning (Aurora)
Spoiler alert: severe (but you would see it coming anyway)
The worst possible thing you can do going into Maleficent is expect it to be faithful to Sleeping Beauty. In fact, other than the character names, some aspects of their design, and a very select few plot points, it's practically an original property.
But "branding" is a thing that exists.
The curse—and the arbitrary choice of a spinning wheel to serve as the vehicle for its execution—are too intrinsic to "The Beauty Sleeping In the Wood" to dispose of, so they must remain. So must infant Princess Aurora's exile. But in the largest strokes as well as in some of the smallest, Maleficent blithely ignores the established facts, even as few as there were, of Beauty.
It can't even be thoughtful enough to remember that Aurora, being in hiding, was rechristened Briar Rose. It seems impossible that a deletion this pointless, introducing a plot hole even a Disney animated film avoided, could be made.
But it did have a point, that being not to confuse the very stupidest of the children in the audience, who are into the Disney Princess phenomenon, and who can still pick out Aurora from the other blondes—she's the skinny one who hasn't been exposed to the Terrigen Mists—but who have never actually seen the 1959 film.
Because "branding" is, still, a thing that exists.
This minor omission is hardly some kind of big deal—I'm irrationally attached to the name "Briar Rose" for reasons that don't seem to go beyond its prosody—but it does serve to let you know that the creators don't really care very much about the IP they're cynically mining.
Even from an artistic perspective, too much is lost: Robert Stromgberg retools the strikingly distinct settings established by Beauty's background artist and design dictator Eyvind "Square Trees" Earle, rendering instead a generic fantasy land, complete with glowing fauna straight out of Avatar, albeit only about one-tenth as visually interesting as Stromberg's own production design work on that very film. Beauty's wonderful use of color, most prominently deployed as a literal battle between blue and red, is referenced once in what could be described as a joke, except that jokes are supposed to be funny.
The lack of bolder hues (traded in for generic, underlit medieval interiors) means that Beauty's equally intense use of the nonexistence of color cannot form the basic aesthetic backbone of Maleficent, either, though at least it is present in some shots. Stromberg does, thankfully, realize that the eponymous bad fairy is an amazing creation, one that, as pure image, remains one of Disney animation's finest.
Despite that, Maleficent is not at all interested in being a visual successor to Beauty—and one would have to be a moron, like me, to hope that there might be illuminated storybook framing sequences or a heavenly choir in a film committed so wholeheartedly to our new grimdark paradigm. Yet such flourishes certainly would have made the butchering, both literal and figurative, somewhat easier to swallow. We do, however, get a narrator, intoning altogether too smugly—suggesting the direct address of an author who thinks she's made a radical statement, rather than a mess.
How about you find your ass, and jump up it?
The film's very reason for existing is to explain, to justify, and to turn into an empowerment tale the several monstrous acts of a villain considered two-dimensional even by Disney standards, who is so synonymous with evil her name is literally a synonym for evil. Linda Woolverton, writer of the inexplicably popular dominance-submission musical Beauty and the Beast, wants to change the way we look at Maleficent. She does so through the simple expedient of changing everything Maleficent ever did.
If this cheat comes even close to working, we can thank Maleficent's first-billed star, who counters Woolverton's sloth with truly heroic acting.
Granted, Angelina Jolie is assisted by some equally heroic, potentially Oscar-caliber makeup. The highlight of this is the demonic, recurved pair of horns (I may have weird fetishes); but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out, as everyone else has, those fantastic cyborg cheekbones.
The first thirty minutes of Maleficent, it has to be said, aren't half as lazy as Woolverton's script eventually becomes. The story begins with Maleficent as a young fairy girl who meets a human boy, Stefan; they grow up, become lovers (in an antiseptically PG-rated sort of way), and are ultimately torn apart when xenophobic humans invade Maleficent's fairy kingdom. As its most powerful inhabitant, Maleficent has become its warrior chief, and leads its army of animate flora, including what appears to be a Graboid, in its defense. To the surprise of absolutely no one except the king, Maleficent and her magical horde scatter the useless human army.
The king, though now dying, still plots revenge, and offers his kingdom to anyone who can kill the woman who brought him low. Stefan overhears and trades Maleficent's trust for worldly power—only the last vestige of a conscience prevents him from murdering her outright, but he does not balk at feeding her a sleeping potion and then sawing off her wings to present to the king as proof that he did.
As has been pointed out a hundred times by now, Maleficent goes to a pretty interesting place for a fairy tale aimed at children—that is, Maleficent is very close to being explicitly about rape, and her fate, taken at face value, is actually even worse.
Only the youngest viewer, or the most truly unobservant one, could conceivably miss this—and I don't customarily review reviews, but the sole saving grace of that point-missing exercise is that a woman authored it, which means she'll at least be somewhat insulated from reproach for describing what happens to the young fairy with the beautiful wings as being "dump[ed]" or "rejected" rather than "betrayed, drugged, assaulted, crippled, and humiliated." If we must, despite our eyes to see, ask the question "In Maleficent, why is Angelina Jolie hung up on some loser?", it might have something to do with that loser harvesting her organs.
That's my "interpretation."
Stromberg makes some dire mistakes in dramatizing it. The key scene where Maleficent awakes to find her wings missing is filmed in a static medium long-shot with her in the center, of about eight seconds' duration, which isn't the single worst choice possible only because the editor held off from making it less than eight seconds. With a director who had proven himself in other ways, I might be tempted to credit this lack of artifice as a brave formalistic move, forcing the actor to carry all of the emotion of the scene alone; but at only eight seconds, all the chance Stromberg gives this shot is the opportunity to become awkward. It's also the only moment where Jolie is not fully living up to her role—her deep-breath, full-throat screams register as fake, given the gravity of her injury, conveying little of what would have to be unimaginable physical shock and pain. It remains harrowing enough, since we (or most of us, anyway) intellectually understand what's happened; but between Stromberg's artlessness and Jolie's staginess, so much emotional immediacy is lost.
Mishandled or not, Maleficent is violated totally, and there is no better motivation for a character in a revenge film. Thus, since revenge is taken in this movie, Maleficent has been, incorrectly, categorized as such. But there are only about twenty minutes where the genre label seems appropriate. Still, fair is fair: so long as Maleficent is rebuilding herself and actively seeking her revenge, it remains an acceptably compelling watch.
But then Aurora is, as she must be, transferred to the care of the three "good" fairies. Their race treason is inadequately unexplained—in fact, we never do learn why the fairy kingdom fails to wage a war of extermination on the humans after their intolerable provocation—but nevermind. As for their presentation, imagine, if you dare, three actresses doing their broadest impersonation of Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present from Scrooged, all at the same time and without a hint of Kane's modulation. That ringing in your ears is the sound of the cells dying—once it's gone, you'll never hear that frequency again. The fairies, already right on the line between endearing and obnoxious even in the easy-going original, now bloom fully into a collective annoyance so toxic that you'll pray Maleficent would kill them, just so you won't have to hear their hateful blather one moment more.
Sad spoiler: that doesn't happen.
Shortly thereafter, Maleficent stops being anything resembling a roaring rampage of revenge, indeed stops being good at all, and contents itself with becoming a retread of nothing less inappropriate than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Maleficent, apparently having no duties or interests other than monitoring Aurora's progress, stalks the infant, saving her time and again from the negligent ministrations of her idiot guardians. The years go by, and Aurora even meets Maleficent. Aurora dubs her her "Fairy Godmother," which is indeed sort of funny.
Unfortunately, and disastrously, Maleficent returns these affections unambiguously. The rest of the film is made not just predictable, then, nor just trite and kind of stupid—ultimately, it's made quite fucking awful.
The notion of exploring Maleficent as a villain who wasn't born bad, but who became so twisted by hatred and injury that she'd ultimately sacrifice someone she genuinely cares about, remains a great idea. It's tragic, then, that the back half of Maleficent is spent staring, instead, at the putrefying corpse of its own dramatic tension.
The thing about Maleficent is that, barring a reinvention of Beauty's very premise—and then I don't know why we could conceivably give a single damn about this movie as constituted—once she curses Aurora, she's already far beyond the pale.
The whole thing makes one wonder if Woolverton's ever seen Return of the Jedi; that was a wonderful film that played through many of the same themes, and recognized that its villain wasn't about to get redeemed with a single act of heroism, only that he could earn the forgiveness of the child he had delivered unto death. But the truly great thing about Jedi is, no matter how certain Luke was, he was a delusional kid, and we never knew that there was still any good in Vader till the moment he threw the Emperor into a bottomless pit.
What Maleficent offers, instead of that kind of dark, unpredictable journey, is a turn away from evil that is wholly mechanical, utterly cheap, entirely devoid of inner conflict, and completely transparent.
Even worse, it's a return that rips off Jennifer Lee with terrifying abandon. Can you guess what "true love's kiss" means, in this movie? You can and will if you've seen Frozen. If this maternal bond between Maleficent and Aurora is, in truth, far more plausible than a sisterly connection between what amounted to two strangers, well, at least Elsa hadn't premeditated a complex plan to murder Anna.
Incidentally, if you're wondering what Aurora has to think about any of these developments, you shouldn't, because Woolverton simply didn't care.
Adding dissatisfaction to injury, the (badly-cut) action climax doesn't even feature Maleficent herself turning into a dragon, and the thing that does turn into a dragon (her raven familiar), is possibly cinema's very worst dragon, threatening for almost a whole, complete, and cognizable moment, before it is rotely dispatched by extras. Thus the one single thing you would absolutely have to assume any big-budget live-action reinterpretation of Beauty would get right, Maleficent absolutely fails at.
When the time for direct revenge does (finally) come, it ends in just another sanitized Disney slip-and-fall death. In this movie, about an antihero (at best) who was previously ready to annihilate Stefan's family in order to punish him, this isn't just a tired trope—it's outright cowardice. In 1959, the hero could stab the villain in the heart with an enchanted blade; in 2014, the villain must leap to his own demise after being given a chance to live in peace and harmony with his rape victim.
So Maleficent, which must have been deliberately designed as a feminist film, despicably retrenches into telling you what "good girls" are supposed to do: care for children and show mercy. That these are arguably decent traits for anyone to have isn't particularly relevant—and, for what it's worth, turning the other cheek to Stefan is about as purely indecent as it gets.
Because I came to see a terrorist bitch, not a heroine reconstructed in line with Judeo-Christian values. In the end, Maleficent evokes a clitoridectomy in more ways than one; this is a movie that didn't see fit to let me feel much of anything at all other than a phantom pain where the good parts used to be.